Trevor Paglen, still from 89 Landscapes, 2015.

“The Network Is Hostile”: Trevor Paglen & Jacob Appelbaum on the Future of Surveillance

BOMB Magazine
BOMB Magazine
Published in
7 min readMar 22, 2016


Artist and geographer Trevor Paglen, renowned for his photographs, films, installations, lectures, and books on the theme of surveillance, engaged in a conversation with long-time collaborator, computer-security expert, activist, and hacker Jacob Appelbaum, who has contributed to the causes of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden. They advocate for Tor, the global, volunteer-run, peer-to-peer anonymity network that is a viable alternative to submitting to ever-increasing mass surveillance.

Trevor Paglen: We’ve come to learn that the network is hostile. The Internet was supposed to be the greatest tool of global communications and means of sharing knowledge in human history. And it is. But it has also become the most effective instrument of mass surveillance and potentially one of the greatest instruments of totalitarianism in the history of the world.

Jacob Appelbaum: You might think of the Internet as a series of servers or companies and think of how you personally connect to it. Instead, there are signals intelligence stations around the world, along with enormous fiber-optic cables used for interception. Many computers have been compromised to serve for signals intelligence collection. Berlin and Vienna, for example, are signals intelligence platforms, which are actually used as part of the special collections service. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel was collected on by the NSA, it happened from a US embassy. In fact, we know that it happened from the one in Berlin, on Pariser Platz. The way that computers are broken into is via passive tap, a fiber tap of the kind that Trevor is fond of scuba diving for and taking photographs of. The collection is possible because the NSA works to compromise standards: you think that something is secure — you do banking online or read online — and the NSA makes sure that you believe it is safe, but, actually, it isn’t.

Trevor Paglen, National Security Agency, Ft. Meade, Maryland, 2013, C-print, 35.625 x 53 inches.

Before Edward Snowden, when people said such things, the reaction was, “Oh, crazy conspiracy theorists.” Now we know they were and are right. And that is not reassuring! We can now imagine this type of mass surveillance — all data being stored in a database — and what that allows for is a kind of time travel, if you will. When an intelligence analyst thinks you’re interesting, they can basically travel back in time and see the things you’ve previously done and then decide if that is worthy of more inspection. That inspection will potentially include all of your web browsing or surveillance of all your telephone’s content, as well as the metadata.

The program group that bothers me the most is called JTRIG [Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group] and they’re a division of the British GCHQ [Government Communications Headquarters]. JTRIG is a mass propaganda operation; it’s using data for disinformation and for changing political outcomes, harassing people, defaming and harming them — treating them as subhuman, effectively. And that’s an entire division of the intelligence service; they have lots of people working on that. For example, they find someone who’s a particularly religious Catholic or Muslim — I’m sure it doesn’t happen to Catholics as much as it happens to Muslims — and then they use that information to blackmail them. These are the claims that they make themselves. They use the mass surveillance data sets — those fiber-optic cables — and there’s a full life cycle between the cable tap and actually using that information to harm people in a material fashion. For me, that’s the hallmark of a tyrannical operation. I don’t want to see governments engaged in those kinds of secret and damaging activities.

Trevor Paglen, National Security Agency Utah Data Center, Bluffdale, UT, 2012, C-print, 36.875 x 48.875 inches.

Trevor Paglen: One way the network is hostile is that state actors are conducting mass surveillance and are attacking critical infrastructure using weaponized malware. They orchestrate propaganda and blackmail operations against political enemies. There’s another side of the hostile network, which is done by corporations. We all know for a fact that Google and Facebook are collecting enormous amounts of data on every single person who uses their services and they are conducting analytics on a scale that was unimaginable even a few years ago: tracking everybody who uses credit cards, who uses a cell phone, and so forth, and collecting intimate details about their lives.

Google probably knows more about me than my family does.

Today, in large part, that information is being used to sell you things, or they try to sell your information to advertisers. But tomorrow, that information will be used in all kinds of other ways. We can imagine your Google searches modulating your credit score, we can imagine a picture of you drinking a beer that you posted on Facebook will be recognized by an object-recognition algorithm. Maybe Facebook will want to sell that to your auto-insurance company, and your auto-insurance company would change your insurance rates based on that. We can imagine that if you wear an exercise-monitoring device like Fitbit, corporations will be collecting intimate vital metric data on you. If you don’t exercise, maybe your health insurance premiums go up, and if you do exercise, they go down.

But the point is that — although it’s not evenly distributed yet, this will increasingly be true in the future — the rights and the privileges that you have will be modulated according to these kinds of metrics. In China this is already beginning to happen.

Jacob Appelbaum: The Chinese scoring system is part of their identity intelligence — these guys are all about doing everything they can to identify everybody in every way. The scary part about what’s happening in China is how we can imagine it as the future everywhere. Identification of all things at all times and their correlation and linking with data sets effectively means that there’s a database of all of a person’s activities linked through time with their identity and anything that might identify them — their fingerprints, their biometric passport, their retinal scans, and whatever else is going on.

Imagine big data analytics processing your personal patterns — biometric, biographic, contextual, what you read, your military service, whatever it is that you might do. This might include your social relations: you have a friend who smokes, and his or her credit score goes down. Then your credit score also goes down because you keep the company of someone who smokes. It’s a paternalistic control and surveillance that informs automatically. You no longer need people to tell on each other. The mere existence of certain devices ensures that the devices themselves tell automatically. This is the nightmare of the science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick. Not that everyone would be a spy — that’s sort of a trope about the former East Germany — but that every thing would be a spy … I think it’s in Ubik, there’s a doorknob which is a sort of Internet of Things doorknob. When someone wants to open the door, the doorknob demands to be paid. And of course the person says, “I don’t have to pay you.” And it says, “Well, actually if you look at the contract you signed when you took this doorknob, you’ll find that, in fact, payment of the doorknob is a necessity if you wish for it to open the door.”

We’re sort of moving into that world. While it doesn’t seem so obvious, if you look, you see patterns emerging about social control in which you want to have those doorknobs to track who might be opening the doors and whether or not you want them to open. I mean, it’s really an extreme of the control society tied directly to your identity. And there are in fact plans for something called real-time tipping. The NSA will ensure that if you ride on a train or a bus or fly on an airplane, you’ll have to show an identification card even for domestic travel. And it’s tied to biometric information. In other words, you scan your Lufthansa boarding pass to fly from Amsterdam to Munich, as I just did today, and a real-time alert that I was traveling would be sent to an analyst or to a database. And if someone decided that I was a person of interest, I would get tipped off and sent to an analyst in real time. And now you start to see how these things tie together — it becomes extremely alarming to think about how this information might be used to impact your life. It’s a very scary thing.

Jacob Appelbaum is an independent journalist, computer security researcher, and hacker. He is a core member of the Tor Project, a free software network designed to provide online anonymity. He represented WikiLeaks at the 2010 HOPE conference and contributed extensively to the publication of documents revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013. Appelbaum currently lives and works in Berlin.

Trevor Paglen is an artist whose work has been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Tate Modern, London; Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others. He is the author of five books and numerous articles on subjects including experimental geography, state secrecy, military symbology, photography, and visuality. His most recent book, The Last Pictures (University of California Press, 2012), is a meditation on the intersections of deep time, politics, and art.

This excerpt appears courtesy of BOMB. Read the complete exchange here.



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